The principle of open justice is central to the rule of law, and the media play a vital role by fairly and accurately reporting court proceedings to the public.
In Turkey, at a time when confidence in the law seems at an all-time low, the job of the media to act as the eyes and ears of the public is getting riskier each day.
This week, the OdaTV columnist and experienced court reporter Müyesser Yıldız was prevented from reporting evidence presented in an open court about the Chief of Staff, General Hulusi Akar. The general’s legal team argued that the evidence given by an unidentified witness contained defamatory comments, damaging the dignity of their client. Lawyers asked for blocking the publication and the court has ruled in their favour.
Earlier, in another trial, known as “the assassination attempts on admirals” case, one of the accused, Mehmet Orhan Yücel, sued, the then nationally distributed Zaman newspaper, over their court reporting which named him as a suspected plotter.
The court had ruled that Mr. Yucel’s rights were infringed and the newspaper was ordered to pay damages.
When the case went to The Court of Cassation, the decision made by the trial court was overturned, citing public interest in publication and no infringement of the dignity and privacy of the individual.
Mr. Yucel made an individual application to the highest court in August 2014. On 21 March 2018, upholding the decision of the Court of Cassation, The Constitutional Court stated that the courts cannot determine how journalism is exercised or which techniques journalist may choose to use.
In a country where journalists are indicted, citing evidence consisting of their journalistic work, the decision of the highest court of the land is highly significant. It is also doubly interesting because it was delivered just over a month before an Istanbul court sentenced 10 former staffers of the daily Zaman to a range of jail terms.
Yet, unlike the belated reports appearing in the media, I hesitate to declare this ruling to be a precedent; because we have seen one too many examples of unprecedented behavior in recent times.
Even though the decisions of the Constitutional Court are binding for everyone, in January this year, the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the detention of journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan on charges related to the July 2016 coup attempt violated their rights, was promptly rejected by a lower court.
Only a week ago, on April 25, the 14 journalists, staff and board members of the Cumhuriyet newspaper were sentenced to prison. They were found guilty, among other charges, of changing the editorial direction of the newspaper.
The verdict was condemned by a coalition of international press freedom organisations as “the failure of Turkey’s justice system and the rule of law”.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), criticized Turkey’s serious backsliding in freedom of expression and said that the rule of law was a fading memory.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s track record when it comes to freedom of expression and rule of the law has been abysmal.
Ahead of the 24 June elections, we now wait to see the manifesto pledges of other parties on how they propose to do things differently.
This post is also available in: Turkish